Sesshins at Eiheiji
Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. Current California Governor Jerry Brown did 4 sesshins when he was in Japan in the 1980’s. While I doubt if they were as intense as the sesshin described below, I sincerely hope Governor Brown remembers some of the lessons he learned from his intense meditation retreats.
From Eat Sleep Sit, pages. 275-278:
Every year, the first week of December is devoted exclusively to sitting. Beginning December 1, trainee monks rise at three in the morning, half an hour earlier than usual, and spend all day sitting facing the wall, until nine at night. This continues seven full days — no small feat.
… For seven days from three in the morning onward, we alternated forty-minute periods of sitting with ten-minute periods of slow walking. Not only is it painful to sit for long periods of time with the legs folded, but sleepiness interferes with concentration as well. Between periods of sitting, therefore, we would step down our platforms and shuffle around at a fixed pace, moving so slowly that in the time it took for one complete breath, in and out, we took just half a step. Slow walking is not considered a break from sitting, but must be undertaken with the same meditative frame of mind.
During the intensive sitting, participants remain seated in the Monks’ Hall not only for meals, but also for morning, midday, and evening services, which are held between sitting sessions. For seven days we practically never left our platforms.
… I had read of intensive sitting before coming to Eiheiji, and ever since it had held a peculiar fascination for me, lingering in my mind as the one practice above all others that seemed to embody the deepest, most sublime aspects of life in a Zen monastery. At the same time, I was anxious to know if I had it in me to carry off such a feat.
The seven days of sitting were beyond anything I could have imagined. Any feelings of fascination and curiosity I had at the start were quickly demolished. There is no way for me to convey the magnitude of the experience. With each passing day, the pain in my legs grew more agonizing: worse yet, fatigue built up in every cornet of my being until my consciousness began to flicker and dissolve. After a while I was no longer capable of the slightest thought or emotion, not even wondering why in the world I was sitting like that. Everything ceased to exist except for the simple fact of me sitting facing the wall.
Time drifted like incense smoke, and in the incense burner, the wreckage of elapsed time stacked up quietly in the form of white ash.
Intensive sitting certainly transcends the mere act of sitting. The final day, when everything comes to a climax, is called “all-night sitting”. On that day, we remained sitting until 1 a.m. the following day — in other words, the morning of December 8, the day of Buddha’s enlightenment.
As the hour of liberation approached, we were gripped by an intense excitement that wrecked the stillness in the hall and made breathing difficult.
… An then it happened. The cloud gong broke the silence, proclaiming the end of intensive sitting. With the first reverberation, I felt the sound transform to light and wash over me. The solemn tones inundated me in billows of radiance, flooding the darkest recesses of my mind with blinding light. … I let out the tension inside me with a sigh, and in that instant all the hardship of the past seven days disappeared without a trace.